Health in the Park is a city-wide initiative raising awareness and making it possible for residents to be as healthy as they can be. Because it’s a community program, St. Louis Park Schools superintendent Rob Metz thinks it makes sense to include the city’s youngest residents. “Because we feed a lot of the kids in St. Louis Park, [the schools have] gotten a lot of attention.”
The children, Metz says, are the future of the community, and teaching them to be healthy, specifically through the Better Eating program, helps secure a healthy future.
In late 2013, St. Louis Park earned funding from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota for a health initiative called Health in the Park. The program has “action teams” for everything from Better Eating, Well-Being (mental health), Active Connections (exercise/physical health), and Inclusion (equity in diversity).
While changes to what you eat to stay healthy may seem basic, doing it at the schools is no easy task. “We have about 4,600 students from K-12,” Metz says. “We prepare 2,500 lunches every day,” which means some kids are bringing food from home. More than 1,000 breakfasts are also served each day.
The schools first started changing their food policies after the 2010 Healthy and Hungry Free Kids Act, which was part of federal and state changes. “You have to look really hard to find a pop machine,” Metz says. And the machines they do have contain healthier foods. But they’ve made changes above and beyond the state and federal requirements, he says.
The high school now has a salad bar, and the milk served has no added hormones. While the entire state now serves free breakfast for kindergarten, one of the elementary schools has started “Grab and Go” breakfast. Breakfast carts come to every classroom, and students can grab food and punch in their number. That new program has been a huge success, Metz says.
Snack policies have been revised in some of the elementary schools as well. The Better Eating team has “worked with parents and food staff to design a snack policy to make sure students have healthy snacks every day,” Metz says. “And even kids who can’t get it on their own have a snack.”
For parents who are worried about their child’s nutrition, the school website allows families to see the nutrition facts of all the menu items before they head to school. “They also have the technology now that when a student punches in their number, their allergies pop up,” Metz says. “It’s just one more check so an adult sees that before the student takes their lunch.”
Within the action team of Better Eating, there are Better Eating Champions—parents or community members who volunteer to lead the efforts to help promote better eating in all areas. One of those volunteers is dietitian and St. Louis Park mom Lynda Enright.
“I live in St. Louis Park, I have three kids in the school district,” she says, which is why she volunteered. And her work in the field of nutrition helped.
“I work mostly with adults,” she says, “and people don’t know how to feed themselves. If there’s anything you need to know in order to live well, it’s how to feed yourself.” Which is why working with the schools is so critical. “It’s important to teach them.”
What a Better Eating “champion” does is meet with people in the community to ask them what they believe needs to be done to improve the health of the city. Enright has met with principals and parents and believes the schools are getting there, “but I think we have a long ways to go,” she says. “We still have a lot to do.”
Which is why the program is still moving forward, always making improvements. These kids are special and talented, Metz says, “And we have to take care of them. It makes it a community-wide effort to take care of these children.”